GPS and e-hailing apps like Uber don't have mean the end of professional cabbies.
The test to become a London cabbie is so demanding that it's not called a test at all. It's called the Knowledge, with a capital K. Those who attain the Knowledge have undertaken such a rigorous mental challenge that their brains physically grow; drivers who pass have been found to have more grey matter in the hippocampus. Jody Rosen offers a great insider look at a cabbie's quest for the Knowledge in T magazine. Marvel at just how difficult the whole process is:
It has been called the hardest test, of any kind, in the world. Its rigors have been likened to those required to earn a degree in law or medicine. It is without question a unique intellectual, psychological and physical ordeal, demanding unnumbered thousands of hours of immersive study, as would-be cabbies undertake the task of committing to memory the entirety of London, and demonstrating that mastery through a progressively more difficult sequence of oral examinations — a process which, on average, takes four years to complete, and for some, much longer than that.
Toward the end, the piece confronts the looming question of the day: Does the Knowledge have a future in the digital age, or will GPS systems and e-hail services like Uber spell its demise? Rosen (like many other observers) seems to believe technology will ultimately emerge victorious, and suggests the case for keeping the Knowledge around won't be practical and economic but rather spiritual and sentimental. "The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London's soul, and for the souls of Londoners."
It's natural to set up the Knowledge-versus-technology battle as an either/or, modern-day John Henry situation. But there's room for GPS and e-hailing to change the driving profession without eliminating it. What's far more likely, for the near-term and intermediate and even long-term-ish future, is that driving becomes a tiered enterprise that accommodates both casual entrants and highly skilled professionals—effectively offering different services as a result.
A good analogy might be the waiting profession. High-end or trendy restaurants require waiters with the service equivalent of the Knowledge: a heightened competence in both the menu and customer relations. In other places you just need to get food: the equivalent of taking a clumsy trip guided entirely by GPS without any superior insight into traffic patterns or shortcuts. Great waiters don't just service food, they improve the dining experience, and get paid accordingly. But for the restaurant business to survive, cities need casual waiters, too.
Obviously, London isn't the only city dealing with this shift. A few months back, occasional CityLab contributor Eric Goldwyn reported that New York's Taxi & Limousine Commission seems to be responding to the changes in the cabbie world with an even greater emphasis on driver education. Here's Goldwyn in the New Yorker:
The T.L.C. recently partnered with the City University of New York to provide a uniform curriculum for all yellow-taxi and for-hire drivers seeking licensing from the city. It encompasses geography, an overview of the T.L.C. rules, and guidance on dealing with passengers. It's nothing like the Knowledge, but "there is an interest in a higher professional standard in New York," [TLC spokesman Allan] Fromberg said.
In other words, TLC leaders seem to be doubling-down on cabbie proficiency at exactly the moment you might expect them to water it down. Perhaps time will show that to be the wrong move, but given how protective of its terrain the TLC has been historically, it at least seems like a calculated one. Goldwyn reports that driver complaints are already at an all-time low; if TLC's drivers have something to offer that GPS-reliant drivers don't, they will always have a place on city streets.
What's more, it seems like only a matter of time until cities like London and New York remove the biggest advantage to casual taxi services: the e-hail. Right now, one of the keys to the success of Uber et al is convenience. People don't have to wait very long for a car, and they don't have to carry cash (or even a wallet) to pay. But there's no reason TLC or other regulated city taxi services can't develop a service app of their own. Once they do, the biggest thing separating drivers will be whatever knowledge of the road they have over and above what GPS provides.
So it's reasonable to believe there's not only room for both professional and casual taxi drivers on city roads—indeed, London Mayor Boris Johnson says he's in favor of just that arrangement—but that cities themselves will benefit from the increase in options. In time, this new balance could lead to fewer professional drivers than exist today, which in turn could raise the threshold for becoming one. But that doesn't mean there won't be anyone with the Knowledge in the future. It's just as likely to mean the people who do possess the Knowledge will be even more knowledgeable than they already are.